Movie Review of Fantastic Man – A Documentary Film on William Onyeabor

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One wonders why there is a dearth of documentary films in Nigeria when there are thousands of people, who can form the subjects for such films because of the principal roles they play (and played) in our evolution as a people.  This is apart from countless goings-on, which can also form the bases for such films. So, it was absolutely impressive to see a 31-minute documentary on William Onyeabor titled Fantastic Man.

William Onyeabor released 8 albums between 1977 and 1985 .  They include: Crashes in Love (1977), Atomic Bomb (1978), Tomorrow (1979), Body and Soul (1980), Great Lover (1981), Hypertension (1982), Good Name (1983) and Anything You Sow (1985).

In 2013, Luaka Bop, a New York, US-based record label, released a compilation album of William Onyeabor titled: Who is William Onyeabor? The album was number 4 on Time magazine’s Top 10 Albums of 2013.  Pitchfork, a Chicago, US-based daily internet publication devoted to music news, criticism and commentary plus artiste-interview also named the album ‘Best New Reissue’.

Fantastic Man; directed by Jake Sumner, a British filmmaker, tells the compelling story of Onyeabor, who abruptly quit music after the release of his 8th album to become a pastor and a traditional ruler.  Incidentally, Onyeabor’s last album had a hit track – When the Going is Smooth and Good, Many Many People Will be Your Friend … So, his retirement from music baffled and continues to confuse people, especially because he has refused to speak to the media ever since.

Writing in The New York Times on 15th November, 2013, Mike Rubin stated that ‘An Elusive Mystery Man in music lies low.  William Onyeabor is absent for his new compilation CD … William Onyeabor keeps to his palace in Nigeria, watching religious TV while American fans worship from afar’.

Jake Sumner interviews 17 people in order to get a glimpse of Onyeabor’s elusive world.  They are: Laolu Akins (Musician, BLO), Femi Kuti (Musician), UchennaIkonne (Music Historian/DJ), ED Keazor (Music Historian), LemmyGhariokwu (Artist),Obinna Obi (Onyeabor’s former distributor), Goddy Oku (Onyeabor’s former producer), Ferdinand Ohans (Onyeabor’s former studio manager), Tokunbo Ojekunle (DJ, Radio Continental 102.3 FM, Lagos), DJ Patrick (Record Dealer and self-professed old-school master), Duncan Brooker (Record Collector), Damon Albarn (Musician), Quinton Scott (Founder, Strut Records), Yale Evelev (Luaka Bop, Label President), Eric Welles Nystrom (Luaka Bop, Label Manager), Caribou Dan Snaith (Musician/DJ) and Martyn Ware (Musician, The Human League and Heaven 17).

Onyeabor made a film – Crashes in Love: a Tragedy of How an African Princess Rejects the Love that Money Buys.  However, he did not succeed as a filmmaker and so sojourned in music.

Onyeabor’s 8 albums were recorded and pressed at his production studio, Wilfilms Limited. According to Laolu Akins, William Onyeabor ‘was the only one at the time, who was an artiste who had those facilities’.

Onyeabor’s use of ‘synths’, drum patterns and baselines were the distinguishing characteristics of his music; mind you synthesizers were a luxury in Africa at that time – expensive and dear to maintain.  Damon Alban describes Onyeabor’s music as eccentric, intelligent and incredibly funky.

Uchenna Ikonne observes that William Onyeabor charted his own course rather than towing the tracks beaten by the musicians of the Biafra war era, who were inspired by James Brown’s music.  These rock and roll groups included: Funkees, Hykers, Hygrades, The Apostles, Semi-Colon, The Wings, Figures, Postmen and Silhouettes.  Onyeabor’s music was also markedly different from those of Sunny Okosun, CeeJabs and People Rock Outfit.

Caribou Dan Snaith notes that Onyeabor was one of the pioneers of dance music. ‘He was developing the kind of ideas that were happening in the US at the time and he was doing it independently.’  For Martyn Ware, Onyeabor had a singular vision as no one else was doing his kind of music in Nigeria and Africa at that time.

Perhaps, no one describes William Onyeabor better than Laolu Akins when he says, ‘The first time I met him, I didn’t think he was colourful in any way, but he had talent.  He loves electronics, wanted to do music electronically … had finances and wanted to have control.  He built a pressing plant and hired a studio …and had everything.’

It will be good to reissue the works of artistes of generations past and make documentaries on their works for, at least, two reasons: posterity and to remind many musicians of this generation that before now, many of our musicians did not depend on vulgar lyrics to make hit songs.

Amarachukwu Iwuala

Amarachukwu Iwuala

A writer ... in pursuit of excellence

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